Elections have a way of clarifying political realities. The great political trend of the last twenty years has been the shift in the balance of power between the Centre and the states in favour of the latter. Never was this more startlingly demonstrated than by Jayalalithaa’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision to commute the death sentences imposed on three of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins. Jayalalithaa told the Central government that the logic of the Supreme Court’s ruling allowed her to remit the sentences of all seven prisoners being held for the assassination and to release them with near-immediate effect.
The DMK, nominally allied to the Congress, supported the chief minister’s inspired political ambush and newspapers (even disapproving ones) hailed Jayalalithaa’s announcement as a master stroke. Tamil sentiment, it seemed, saw the prisoners as martyrs, not killers. The assassinated former prime minister had no all-India constituency that mattered in the country today; his assassins, by virtue of their commitment to a Tamil cause, did.
The Congress’s desperate sponsorship of the Telangana bill further underlined the difficulty national parties face in whipping provincial leaders into line. One parliamentary tableau summed up the Congress’s predicament: the prime minister made his big Telangana speech from behind a protective wall of Congress members of Parliament even as anti-Telangana MPs tore up paper in the well of the house and tossed the shreds about, chanting like the votaries of some new but energetic sect. Also in the well, but a little to the rear, stood that ardent champion of akhand Andhra, Derek O’Brien of the Trinamul Congress, waving a banner in solidarity.
The moment the Telangana bill was passed in Parliament, the Congress chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh resigned from the chief ministership and renounced his membership of the Congress. No longer could the leadership of an all-India party bring provincial chieftains to heel; even the arbitrary authority of the Congress’s vaunted High Command counted for little with state leaders who had to reckon with popular sentiment in their provincial constituencies.
But this must have always been true. So why are state politicians readier to thumb their noses at central authority today?
The most obvious reason is the decline of the Congress as a pan- Indian political party. In state after state, the Congress’s provincial leaders have jumped ship to found powerful regional parties. In the east, Rajiv Gandhi’s protégé founded the Trinamul Congress; in the west, the Congress’s Maratha strongman broke away to form the Nationalist Congress Party.
The reason they chose to become independent political actors instead of remaining the regional satraps of a pan-Indian empire isn’t complicated. Since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress has offered neither a charismatic dynast capable of lifting the fortunes of regional politicians at election time nor a transparent route to the top for powerful provincial leaders aiming, as ambitious politicians will, for national eminence.
By the time Narasimha Rao became prime minister, he was a wily Central politician with no real political base. After him, Manmohan Singh served two terms as prime minister without daring to contest a Lok Sabha election. While the dynasty opted out of the top job for the time being, it made it clear that the prime ministership could only go to a politically neutered figure, wholly loyal to 10 Janpath.
It became increasingly evident that not just the prime ministership, but even cabinet minsterships in Congress governments were reserved for political lightweights with no claim to mass leadership. So clever men like P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and Jairam Ramesh, party spokespersons like Jayanthi Natrajan and Manish Tiwari, loyalists like Veerappa Moily and Sushil Kumar Shinde become Central ministers.
The dynasty was uncomfortable with assertive regional leaders and unwilling to elevate them to high political office. Even Pranab Mukherjee, electorally a lightweight, was deemed too sharp to be trusted with the prime ministership. This meant that there was no incentive for substantial provincial politicians to remain within the Congress. Even the prospect of being part of a party that controlled the Central resources vital to provincial well-being wasn’t enough to keep regional strongmen (and women) loyal because provincial parties like the DMK and the AIADMK had successfully demonstrated that in an era of coalition governments, it was easier to twist the Central government’s arm for money and ministerships from outside the ruling party than from within it. Why audition for an Ashok-Gehlot-like role when you could play the the part of a provincial heavyweight pioneered by the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Jayalalithaa?
This is why the Telangana Rashtra Samithi is playing hard to get on the matter of merging itself with the Congress. In happier times, when the Congress was the natural party of government at the Centre, the politicians of the TRS would have stampeded their way into its arms. Now it makes more sense to ally than to merge: even in the unlikely event of the Congress leading the next Union government, a small party with seats to offer the coalition will have more political leverage than a provincial chapter of the Congress. The Congress could live to see the TRS allying with the NDA; its opportunism might yet sink the Congress in Seemandhra without gaining seats in Telangana’s Lok Sabha constituencies to offset that loss.
While the rise of regional assertiveness has something to do with the decline of the Congress, it is a broad phenomenon that isn’t explained or contained by the political fortunes of a single party. In a curious way, the shift in the balance of power from pan-Indian politicians to provincial ones is evident in the evolution of India’s other all-India party, the BJP. Its first generation of national politicans —Vajpayee, Advani, M.M. Joshi — have faded, but their Delhi-based understudies — Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh — have been elbowed into the sidelines by the incumbent chief minister of a mid-sized state.
Interestingly, by the time L.K. Advani’s embarrassing bid to lead the BJP into the 2014 elections petered out and it became clear that Narendra Modi was the chosen one, the BJP’s leadership discourse had begun to centre more and more on its chief ministers rather than its Delhi-centred politicians. Shivraj Singh Chouhan began to seem a likelier future leader than the usual suspects in Delhi. Clearly the cachet of successfully running a provincial government had begun to count for more than parliamentary experience or the ability to cut a political dash in Delhi.
The new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party, grasped the need for state office quickly. Its decision to form the government in Delhi despite the perils of running a minority regime, demonstrated how valuable provincial office was for politicians hoping to make a national impact. Yogendra Yadav joked ruefully that nothing would suit the AAP better than the Election Commission postponing the general elections by a year. This would give the AAP a breathing space in which to win its spurs in provincial elections in states like Haryana and Punjab, and thus lay strong provincial foundations for its national ambitions.
The BJP, the AAP and the country’s several entrenched regional parties, are, in their very different ways, poised to take advantage of this provincialization of Indian politics. The Congress, crippled by the need to cosset a dynast in Delhi, can only stand athwart this trend, yelling ‘stop’.